U.S. Says It Didn't Target Muslims
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Faced with angry complaints, U.S. officials defended an anti-terrorism program yesterday that secretly tested radiation levels around the country -- including at more than 100 Muslim sites in the Washington area -- and insisted that no one was targeted because of his or her faith.
One official knowledgeable about the program explained that Muslim sites were included because al Qaeda terrorists were considered likely to gravitate to Muslim neighborhoods or mosques while in the United States.
"If you were looking [for] the needle in a haystack, that's the haystack you would look at," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. "You'd look at the [likely] targets and the places the operators were."
No indications of radiation were found at the businesses, homes, warehouses or mosques that were included in the program. The official said that radiation monitoring of the Muslim sites started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and lasted through 2003.
The focus on the Muslim sites, which was first reported last week by U.S. News & World Report, has stunned and angered officials at mosques and Muslim and Arab-American organizations. Two such groups have filed Freedom of Information requests, known as FOIAs, in recent days to try to learn which sites were monitored. They also have requested meetings with the FBI, which ran the program along with the Energy Department.
"The problem [is] . . . it further gives the Muslim community a sense they are suspect, they are under the gun," said Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Michael A. Mason, who oversees the Washington Field Office of the FBI, said in an interview that he hoped to meet next week with the groups.
"We have not violated the law; we have not violated the Constitution; we have not gone on private property," Mason said. He said that he could provide few details because the program remains classified but added that the monitoring devices involved were "passive," roughly akin to holding a thermometer out the window of a moving car to measure the temperature.
"It's not like thermal-imaging a house, where you're trying to figure out if they're trying to grow marijuana," he said.
Officials emphasized that Washington wasn't the only place where the program operated. Nor were Muslim sites the only focus: The program included airports, buildings and monuments that were considered possible targets for a terrorist attack, said the official familiar with the program who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There was no more intensive focus on D.C. than there was on several other cities," he said.
The testing began several months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when a series of events had convinced U.S. officials that another terrorist attack was imminent, the official said. Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in May 2002 on suspicion of planning an attack with a radiological dirty bomb; Osama bin Laden was threatening to strike again.